Dangers of Pop Culture References

In both of my long-term campaigns, I dropped in a lot of pop culture references.  However, in doing so, I made quite a few big (but different) mistakes in each.  Everyone loves a good joke at the gaming table or to live out their fantasies of being someone cool from a movie/book/comic/whatever (you have no idea how many Wolverine clones I’ve seen in Shadowrun).  However, I’m going to highlight the two massive mistakes I made in my two campaigns.

The first was my 3rd Edition campaign.  I’d DMed a lot by then, but nothing more than a few sessions and typically in games other than D&D.  So I didn’t know the rules nearly as well as my players did (especially since most of them had been playing since I was in diapers).  I was a big fan of the anime series Slayers and had just finished reading the Dragonlance books, so I decided to throw two of the artifacts from those into the game.  One was a Philosopher’s Stone and the other was an Orb of Dragon Control.

I knew what a Philosopher’s Stone was.  I was big into mythology as a kid, so I’d read about it.  The only problem was I’d read about it when I was 10 or 11 and was running this campaign at 19-20.  Therefore, when I decided to add in the Philosopher’s Stone, the two just weren’t linked in my brain for some reason.  I had just used it as a MacGuffin that the players had that the NPC needed for his “I’m going to destroy the world” ritual without realizing it was an actual magic artifact with game stats.  So I was stuck with a bunch of players who wanted to actually use the Philosopher’s Stone and getting annoyed everytime I’d tell them it didn’t do anything.

The Orb of Dragon Control was an even bigger screw-up on my part.  I knew that they were items because I’d ripped it off of a D&D property.  There was one big problem.  The Orb of Dragon Control listed in the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide was completely different from the Dragonorbs in Dragonlance.  I assumed the two were the same just with different names, so I’d only skimmed the item’s description.  This means I’d just handed a bunch of old-school minded players a friggin’ artifact that let them control dragons and cast a massive Wall of Fire spell anytime they wanted, amongst other insane buffs.  At level 5.  I tried repeatedly to get it away from the player who had it (since he’d started dominating every single game) and eventually had to trade him for three massively overpowered (but not nearly as much) magic items.

My last campaign, thankfully, didn’t get completely broken by my idiocy.  But pop culture references still had a massive impact on the game.  It started innocently enough.  I was creating an entire world including my own pantheon of gods.  My roommate was enamored with the idea of the Avenger class.  We’d been talking, and he was on his eighth beer of the night while I was on my fourth of fifth double vodka straight-up on the rocks.  So to say we were a little drunk would be a massive overstatement.  The first thing I did was create each god I’d need to cover an entire pantheon, then assign a gender, then keep randomly generating names until I got one that fit.  My roommate saw this and was helping me pick names as well as deciding on which god he wanted for his Avenger.  In the alcohol-fueled haze, I don’t remember who picked the name for the God of Vengeance.  But we decided to name him “Zod”.  Yes, after General Zod.  What did my roommate decide would be his character’s Oath of Enmity?  “KNEEL BEFORE ZOD!”

It quickly turned into an avalanche.  The group’s name was Wyld Stallyns.  Anytime anything died, I said “Huuuurk!  Blaaaaarg…“.  The fae-pact Warlock made her pact specifically with a Winter Court fae named Lea.  NPCs kept getting named (or renamed by the players) after movie characters.  So did magic items they carried around.  If it wasn’t from a movie, it was from a book, a TV show, a comic, a video game, an internet meme…I believe I may have actually created a pop-culture density that threatened to collapse a black hole when I cut my players off at the pass and actually named the half-vampire Avenger undead hunter NPC “Buffy D Blade“.  Guess what happened when the players killed the vampire who was her dad?  I double dare you to guess.

Now we had a lot of fun with all the references, don’t get me wrong.  But it got in the way of the plot.  Everyone’s backstory, every quest, every NPC, everything ended up some sort of reference.  Any attempt to tell a real story was derailed almost immediately by our need to cram just one more reference into the game.  Looking back, I wonder if things would’ve been different.  Would the ritual book they were hunting after have stayed more in focus if they hadn’t decided to rename it the Necronomicon (Evil Dead reference, not Lovecraft)?  Maybe the players would’ve taken the liquid metal golum more seriously if he wasn’t listed on the initiative board as “T-1000”.   I’ll never really know because not only did I encourage this sort of action from my players, I participated in it.

I’ve made a pledge to myself with my new campaign I just started.  Pop culture references will be OOC only.  I’m going to thoroughly read every magic item I hand out, then Google the damn thing just to make sure I’m not missing some historical background.  I’m not going to stop my players from having fun and being silly at the table, because that’s a lot of the fun of playing a game of D&D – sitting around a table with your friends and hanging out.  But that doesn’t mean I have to let those things seep into my game world either.

I don’t it’s going to help, though.  My roommate’s Drow Assassin is already triggering his at-will teleport ability Shadow Step by saying “Bamf!”

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